Traveling Light

"Looking back, we don’t know if the wars of Homer’s epics actually happened. The role of the ancient storyteller wasn’t to relay facts but to impart greater truths: archetypes, emotions, political structures, and the nature of human experience."

- Stephen Mayes, former director of VII Photo, Aperture no. 214

Mar 31

There was a time when one could board a flight to Kuala Lumpur from Ipoh- a flight so short that one would have already landed just as the flight attendants finished serving orange juice to passengers. The Ipoh International Airport served mainly three routes- Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Medan- a sister city in Sumatera, Indonesia. The carrier of most of these flights also happened to be Malaysia Airlines and so, small town people like me at some point would begin our flying experience with the liner. I was 12, and my sister two years older; when my parents decided to ship us away for a month-long holiday with our aunt in Hong Kong in November 1995, then still a British colony. Without guardians traveling with us, Malaysia Airlines offered to have their female flight attendants clad in tight turquoise baju kebaya, coiffed hair and dazzling smiles as caretakers, who held our hands tightly from the departure gate into the aircraft. We were both given a tag to pin onto our Mickey Mouse t-shirts- “Young Passenger Traveling Alone” - in red and white, with a tiny, red ribbon on it. It came with many privileges. For instance, a walking tour of the airport via passageways restricted for airport staff use. As it would have been abominable to leave us out of the flight attendants’ sight, we were whisked into the office where dozens of pairs of eyes could watch over us as ground staff got busy with non-stop calls for last-minute bookings and flight reschedules. To keep us quiet and also perhaps from being destructive, we were given sodas. Then, we got to enter the boardng gate much earlier than anyone else. There, we watched them fiddle with DOS-powered computers, listened to airport sounds- the buzz of walkie-talkies, women’s black heels clicking against the floor along the corridor and discovered which button to press that would trigger the announcement alarm. Up in the plane, we got kids’ meal sets- mini chicken burgers and fries when everyone else ate fried noodles, and given colouring pencils and paper to scribble on during the four-hour flight. Never mind that we were already in pre-teen and teens and so, were beginning to be more interested in blue-eyed American boys. Forty five minutes before the plane started its descent towards Kai Tak International Airport in Hong Kong- an airport in the heart of town which required most planes to fly precariously above apartments and offices, barely hitting their roofs before landing, the chief flight attendant nudged us to get up and follow him to the first-class cabin. I remembered marveling at how much larger the seats were and that was all. He served us more orange juice and chatted with us. As a miniscule Hong Kong appeared below us, he said with a chuckle: “Can you smell it? The smell of money!” It was Malaysian hospitality- a tagline for the state-owned carrier in recent years- with Malaysian humour tossed in, I now know. Malaysia Airlines have stopped operating from Ipoh as I began to outgrow my teens because it was so much cheaper to travel by road. By then, my family has amassed a small collection of mementos of the airline. We stirred our hot cocoas with stainless steel teaspoons engraved with a little Malay kite at the end of their handles- the company logo. Until today, my mother brings along a purple blanket wherever we travel- discreetly taken from a Malaysia Airlines’ flight many years ago- and insists that it provides the most warmth. We also have black lacquer chopsticks in our kitchen drawer-courtesy of the liner, also discreetly taken, which I use to eat instant noodles with. We laughed at our friend’s grandmother who was caught with Malaysia Airlines’ stainless steel utensils in her handbag in an airport scan that hit the steel detector alarm- the image of a fork and spoon appeared on the computer. The airline didn’t seem to mind. After all, airlines were making tonnes of money because the tickets were so expensive. From the passengers’ perspective, flying was for the privileged and so, everyone that made it up 30,000 feet above sea level wanted a physical memory of their own flying experience to be shown to friends and families on land. These days, I was told life jackets have become the must-have memento, as liners all around the world struggling with rising fuel costs serve food in paper boxes alongside plastic forks and spoons. “Taking the life jacket from the seat is a serious offence,” flight attendants would announce at the end of the flight. In one of my recent Malaysia Airlines’ flight to Cambodia, over coffee in plastic cups, I chatted with a sixty-year-old woman from Perth, Australia who spoke with a thick accent and has silvery cropped hair. She was going to celebrate her birthday on her own in Siem Reap- a town booming with tourists to see the majestic Angkor Wat temple complex . “My husband and I loved traveling especially to Asia,” she said while her dangling earrings bobbed up and down with each head gesture. “He passed away four years ago, but I don’t want to stop living and traveling after he left.” Her voice trailed off and then, she reached out for a tissue, dabbed her eyes and then gave me the most radiant smile I have ever seen in months. A week later, I woke up to a text message saying a Malaysia Airline’s plane en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur codenamed MH370 had disappeared into the night with 239 passengers and crew onboard, throwing families of those in that plane and the nation in disarray and panic. Into the 20th day of search, the plane has yet to be found. The government has, on March 24, 2014, declared it to have crashed into a remote part of the Indian Ocean, suggesting no survivors. In all Malaysian Airlines’ flights heading back to Kuala Lumpur, passengers onboard would hear a heartwarming message which said “Kepada para penumpang Malaysia, kami ucapkan selamat pulang ke tanahair” , or “To all Malaysian passengers, welcome home” in Malay. But to Malaysians, the word “tanahair” is more than just home- it literally means soil and water- the ingredients that give us existence and birthright in a romantic and patriotic way in which there is no English equivalent. Until today, Malaysians are still holding onto strands of hope to say this to the passengers and crew of MH370. As anguish holds all of us ransom still, I remember this exceptional moment, which happened as I was about to get off the plane in Kuala Lumpur that cloudy Sunday on March 9 2014, a day after the plane vanished. Several passengers had approached the pilot and flight attendants that just lost 12 colleagues. They firmly shook their hands and said “Thank you.”

Mar 27
Fleeting memories

"I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

- E B White

Mar 26

The wooden chairs and tables decorated with potted fake lavender plants and the display of freshly baked French pastries tell little that this isn’t in France. The giveaway are the potted- real, that is- red palm trees commonly found in tropical Malaysia that provide ample shade on a hot Sunday noon. L’ Epi D’or, perhaps named after a famous restaurant in Paris, is a French bakery serving understated croissants and croque monsieur which opened 200 steps from my home almost two years ago. But it wasn’t until a weekend ago that I adopted it as my very own quiet pasture. There, I read stories on post-Communism Russia by David Remnick over rambutan turnover and cappuccino and the next day, confided in a friend about my path to healing and recovery from a broken relationship, again over cappuccino and a sausage croissant. How butter and flour and caffeine opened one’s soul to another is a mystery. Or when this yellow brick road of healing appeared, for that matter. To be a writer is to constantly pay attention to the world, observe its ways and tell a story about it. In the past five months, I find myself being made to pay more attention to my tired heart instead- this little world itself that I have in the past, pushed aside and packed neatly under my bed. That listening to a very small heart has in turn, enlarged it; I now found. In the early days of facing acute pain, I coped with loss and grief through hiding and listening to ocean waves to drown out the roaring, voices of accusation inside me. I buried myself in work and books that I brought along to the seaside- Kierkegaard’s Fear & Trembling and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. They taught me to believe in the absurdity and hold my breath. So, I tried sucking in my tummy and draw air into my lungs and then hold- first for seconds, then metaphorically, for days because I couldn’t speak. In grief, I learnt; no words came. Not in writing nor in speaking. But in being mute, my listening skills grew. From the bare whispers of the wind- from Lombok to Kuala Lumpur to my parent’s hometown in Parit, I heard my name being called tenderly, as I switched from being an emotional wreck one day to a stone-cold rock on the other. I couldn’t see much beneath those teary eyes. Some days, I gritted my teeth and waded through the mud of trying to cut ties clumsily. On all days, I prayed and fasted in mourning, searching for answers that would satisfy; only to find rainbows at my feet one day- arranged artistically on the ground from the sunshine rays and droplets from sprinklers nearby. Still, most days passed slowly in what felt like eternity, as I struggled with the vocabulary for grief. But something beneath my feet began to lift my steps. Suddenly, walking was not that difficult. And slowly, syllable by syllable, the words began to trickle and then, flow. Last Sunday, I finally spoke out- it was the word ‘let down’. Without it, I now look in retrospect, I could not grasp ‘forgiveness’. Or ‘letting go’. Strings of other words followed, like pearls to a necklace forming phrases and then, symphonies. I could now build a short narrative- biased as it may be- to a friend, using complicated phrases such as “staking claims” and “owning the person” and ending them with “and by not doing so, I feel fine.” I spoke with full stops and punctuations I was afraid to use in the past, because they put finality to sentences and an end to some dreams. I could now look at “fragments” and “memories” in the eye and cast them to the sea as though they were ashes of a dead body. Recently, I discovered my most powerful word- “Stop”. From two hours, the conversations continued on to four, albeit with work and new words formed in-between. I can now also say “gratitude” for the glimpses of real sacrifice and love and honesty that I received. And “goodbye” with a smile. In dealing with grief, I have discovered a new language and ability to name the complexity of emotions that had previously paralysed me and rendered my speechless. By naming them, you own them and then, you set them free.

In that process and that cafe, I too, am set free- to run and to fly.

Mar 24
In a French cafe, a new language on letting go

On September 11, 2001, Magnum- the world’s most pretigious photo agency- had held its annual meeting which was attended by some photographers that were usually in far-flung countries for projects and assignments at that time of the year. Whether by coincidence or by design, the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York and the spectacular fall of the Twin Towers became among the most documented events in modern history due to the heavy presence of these reporters. The attack was visually gripping. In the absence of reason in the madness of terror, an immediate global connection was made because of the flood of images of debris, eyewitness accounts, survivors’ stories, heroes, villains that claimed responsibility to owning the story. Almost 13 years later, a jumbo jet from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing went missing about an hour after taking off and a week into the search, the Malaysian government called it a “deliberate act” of diversion of the plane’s route, suggesting hijacking or another act of terror. But this story is confined largely to press conferences, unverified military sources on what might have happened to the plane, footages of plainscloth policemen entering homes of the missing pilots and spectacles of the search and rescue teams scouring the waters around Malaysia and the Indian ocean with powerful binoculars. The story, if it may come forth as such, is being articulated best by this image- men up in the air looking for pin-sized objects floating on a wide sea of blue from afar, and found nothing credible enough to be the lead. If the 9/11 was the breathing apparatus for reportage, the missing MH370 is appearing to be choking it- where story after story are relayed in rooms, by men of power in suits and uniforms and where images too, are confined and limited to a seemingly clean environment but with little points to prove. Without a doubt, this is an important story but with only fragments of factual information given, it opens up large spaces for speculations to fill. Added with the lack of photographs and footages of wreckage, bodies, or terrorists claiming responsibility- even despite being in an age where these materials are also sources of mistrust and easily manipulated- the duty to storify the missing plane has become a vague and opaque exercise. It is like trying to find a pathway along the sea.

Mar 19
Pringles party with the kids. The family lives less than this can of Pringles of US$2 a day. it’s hard not to be involved with the children and not buy them these little luxuries when I have the chance.
Mar 9

Pringles party with the kids. The family lives less than this can of Pringles of US$2 a day. it’s hard not to be involved with the children and not buy them these little luxuries when I have the chance.

After herding the cows in the morning, Bu Thum and her youngest daughter Sophea stumbled upon a dead tree trunk. They climbed on it to gather firewood. The land they are on would have been a rice field but planting season only begins after June when the rain comes again. (Off Siem Reap, March 7 2014)
Mar 7

After herding the cows in the morning, Bu Thum and her youngest daughter Sophea stumbled upon a dead tree trunk. They climbed on it to gather firewood. The land they are on would have been a rice field but planting season only begins after June when the rain comes again. (Off Siem Reap, March 7 2014)

Lysa’s father made her a chair just a month ago to help with her sitting. Under the family’s mango tree, I imagine Lysa as a 70-year-old grandmother here, having seen through the seasons of life; have nothing more to seek than to enjoy the evening breeze and glorious sunset. 
Mar 6

Lysa’s father made her a chair just a month ago to help with her sitting. Under the family’s mango tree, I imagine Lysa as a 70-year-old grandmother here, having seen through the seasons of life; have nothing more to seek than to enjoy the evening breeze and glorious sunset. 

My first trip back to documenting Lysa and her family in two and half years’ time, with Sophea, the youngest daughter now a toddler. I am back to explore and capture the new dynamics of the family’s relationship with each other, now that the two girls are older and have each other as playmates in that little hut. Kim Sun and Sophea fought over a doll, a moment of interaction and tension she wouldn’t have with Lysa. I hope to learn more about commitment and love amid hardships and poverty through this one family’s story.
Mar 5

My first trip back to documenting Lysa and her family in two and half years’ time, with Sophea, the youngest daughter now a toddler. I am back to explore and capture the new dynamics of the family’s relationship with each other, now that the two girls are older and have each other as playmates in that little hut. Kim Sun and Sophea fought over a doll, a moment of interaction and tension she wouldn’t have with Lysa. I hope to learn more about commitment and love amid hardships and poverty through this one family’s story.